I propose to take Questions Nos. 110, 151, 162 and 228 together.
The Central Statistics Office, CSO, included a question in the 2002 census to identify the number of persons providing unpaid personal care for a friend or family member with a long-term illness, health problem or disability. The analysis of this section of the census found that: 40,500 people provide 43 hours or more unpaid personal help per week or over six hours per day; 23,400 people provide 15-42 hours unpaid personal help per week or between two and six hours per day; 84,900 people provide 1-14 hours unpaid personal help per week or up to two hours per day.
There are currently approximately 22,000 carers in receipt of carer's allowance or carer's benefit. This means that over 50% of the 40,500 carers, as estimated by the CSO to be caring for more than six hours per day, are in receipt of a specific carer's payment from my Department. People providing lower levels of care would not necessarily meet the qualifying conditions for receipt of a payment. As with all other social assistance schemes, a means test applies, under which the income of the applicant and his or her spouse is assessable. This ensures that limited resources are directed to those in greatest need.
Provision has been made in successive budgets for substantial increases in the income disregards. From April 2004 the weekly income disregards will increase to €250 for a single carer and to €500 for a couple. The effect of this increase will ensure that a couple with two children, earning a joint income of up to €29,328, can qualify for the maximum rate of carer's allowance while the same couple, if they had an income of €46,384, could still qualify for the minimum carer's allowance, the free schemes and the respite care grant. The carer's allowance means test is one of the more flexible tests in terms of the assessment of household incomes. It is estimated that abolition of the means test could cost in the region of €180 million per annum. It is debatable whether abolition of the means test would constitute the best use of the resources available for the support of carers. However, the operation of the means test will be kept under review.
With regard to the continued development of supports for carers, I launched a study on the future financing of long-term care in June 2003. As there are significant issues discussed in the study, including those relating to benefit design, cost and financing of long-term care, my officials are currently preparing a consultation document to accompany the study. This document will focus all interested parties on the specific issues we need to address. I expect this document will be ready for circulation shortly. On completion of this consultation process, a working group, which will include all relevant parties, will examine the strategic policy, cost and service delivery issues associated with the care of older people. The proposals will be examined further in this context.